Published January 24, 2007
BEIRUT, Lebanon – Hezbollah-led opposition supporters paralyzed Lebanon Tuesday with a general strike and tire-burning protests that led to street clashes in which three people were killed and scores injured.
What had been planned as a peaceful work-stoppage turned into the worst violence since the pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement and its allies launched their campaign in November to bring down the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.
In a televised speech to the nation at the end of the day, Saniora called for a special session of parliament to defuse the crisis, and gave every indication that he intended to stay in office.
"We will stand together against intimidation and confront sedition for the sake of Lebanon," he said. He added he remained ready for talks with the opposition.
Black clouds billowed over parts of Beirut as opposition supporters set up burning roadblocks on main routes and at entrances to the capital, as well as in other major cities to enforce the strike. Commuters were stranded and business came to halt in many districts of the capital.
In some areas across the country, government supporters confronted the opposition protesters in bouts of stone throwing, fist-fights and even scattered gunfire.
Police said three people were killed and 43 others sustained gunshot wounds in clashes in the towns of central and northern Lebanon, including two bodyguards of a prominent pro-government politician.
Giving a breakdown, security officials said one pro-government activist was killed, 23 pro-government supporters were shot and wounded, and 15 opposition activists were hurt. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Police said that in the northern port of Tripoli, the second-largest city, a gunbattle with automatic rifles and grenades between the two sides left two people dead and five others wounded. The police did not give the casualties' political allegiance.
In addition, some 80 other people were lightly injured across the country in cases of stone-throwing and other fights.
Police and troops deployed in the thousands across the country in an attempt to open roads and break up clashes. In some cases, troops negotiated the lifting of roadblocks. Elsewhere, they charged crowds to separate battling protesters and push open roads.
The violence escalates the confrontation between Hezbollah and the government, which many have feared could tear apart the country's fragile political and religious factions. The Hezbollah-led opposition is demanding a new coalition government giving them more power, which Saniora has staunchly refused.
The unrest comes two days before a crucial conference of donor nations in Paris aimed at gathering some $5 billion in aid and loans for Lebanon to rebuild after the devastating summer war between Israel and Hezbollah. The money would be a boost for the embattled Saniora — but the political chaos raises questions of whether his government can distribute funds and lead reconstruction without a deal with Hezbollah.
The United States renewed its backing for the Saniora government.
Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in a speech in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday that Washington will make a "substantial contribution" to rebuild Lebanon at the conference, and "to give support to the elected government of the country against those who would destabilize it."
He warned there are attempts to overthrow the government and called for international support for Saniora.
"We have indications they will try to go into the streets this week to overturn a democratically elected government, through the rule of people in the streets, through mobs," he said. It's going to be very important for Arabs, the United States and Europe to stand up in support of the Saniora government "in this really critical hour for Lebanon," he added.
Hezbollah and its allies have been holding a constant street sit-in in downtown Beirut for the past two months, trying to pressure Saniora to step down. On Tuesday, some opposition activists were expressing frustration that the protests so far had not succeeded.
"Peacefully, it didn't work out," said Tony Younes — a follower of opposition leader Michel Aoun, Hezbollah's top Christian ally. "We've been for 52 days protesting and our calls have went unanswered."
"Today, we escalated. Tomorrow we will escalate more. And we will continue until the fall of the government," Younes said, sitting in the middle of a road along with other Aoun followers in the northern Beirut suburb of Zalka.
Hezbollah's deputy leader, Sheik Naim Kassem, told al-Jazeera television that the opposition would decide later in the day whether to call off the action or continue the escalating campaign. "It was very successful and a clear message" to the government and its international backers, said Kassem, summing up the opposition's moves.
Government officials described the disturbances as an attempted coup.
"It is one of the chapters of the putsch," said Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh said. "This will fail as in the past, and the legitimate government of Lebanon will remain steadfast," he told Al-Arabiya television. In another television interview, he called the protesters "thugs."
On the coastal highway north of Beirut, near the Christian port city of Jounieh, troops brandishing automatic rifles and batons separated hundreds of pro- and anti-government protesters and kept them away from motorists. Shots were fired in the air, apparently by security forces to disperse the crowds.
Clashes mainly broke out in areas of Beirut and other cities where residents are divided between government supporters and opposition forces. Areas where residents mainly belong to one side or the other were spared violence.
The conflict has strained fragile sectarian lines in a country that fought a 1975-1990 civil war between Muslims and Christians. In the current power struggle, Lebanon's Sunni Muslims largely support Saniora, while the Shiites back Hezbollah and the opposition. Many Christians back Saniora, but pro-Hezbollah Aoun also has a large following.
Hezbollah chief Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and other opposition leaders called the strike that was backed by labor unions. Saniora and his supporters urged Lebanese to ignore the call, a move endorsed by banking associations and business leaders.
Witness accounts and television footage suggest that the opposition had shut down many neighborhoods and suburbs of Beirut, as well as areas around the country.
Many workers stayed home, either in support of the strike or simply fearing violence. Some schools, which had earlier said they were open, sent mobile text messages to parents announcing closures because of the unrest.
Blazing roadblocks cut off the road to the country's only international airport, in southern Beirut, and the highway linking the capital with the mountains and the road to Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Aviation officials said the airport was operating, albeit with fewer staff. Five flights arrived at the airport, six others left, but another seven flights were canceled.
Cabinet minister Ahmed Fatfat expressed worries over more violence.
"The opposition is attempting a coup by force ... This is not a strike. This is military action, a true aggression and I'm afraid this could develop into clashes between citizens," Fatfat, the youth and sports minister, told Al-Arabiya.
A Saniora aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the prime minister was still in Beirut, contrary to earlier media reports that he had left for France. Saniora has been operating from his downtown office, surrounded by barbed wire and combat troops, while opposition activists have been camped out nearby.